The unexplained bee disappearance known as Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD, is a problem that affects more than just honey producers. It may not seem like it, but bees play a big role in ice cream making. The domino-like process begins with the pollination of seeds for hay in order to feed the dairy producing cows for this internationally beloved dessert.
California has one fifth of the nations honey bees. More specifically, the state’s honeybees account for $6 billion of the $15 billion in commercial crop pollination value.
The CCD problem, involves the abandonment of the hive by adult bees. “The bees are not fleeing because of lack of food, but the ones left behind are dying because of lack of food and no other bees to keep them warm,” said Eric Mussen who is the extension apiculturist at U.C. Davis.
Honey bees in the U.S. were brought over from Europe in 1622. It was not until the 1900’s that contamination problems within the bee populations arose, the first one caused by mites. More recently viruses have become the main focus of bee research in the U.S.
Penn State and University of Montana are two of the top research hubs that focus on CCD. Mussen, who acts as liaison between the academic and the real worlds offers an explanation about the influence of CCD on modern bee studies.
“After CCD came, things have changed,” said Mussen who compares his role as extension apiculturist to a firefighter who has to jump up and fight fires whenever they arise. “CCD is there and now it’s something that we need to take care of before we can get back to other up-and-coming developments.”
U.C Davis, where Mussen works is not currently conducting research on CCD, but within the centers that are, especially on the east coast, 19 viruses have been found in bees thus far. “I’m pretty sure if they keep digging they’ll find more,” said Mussen, but it still doesn’t provide a full explanation for CCD.
The problem regarding CCD, Mussen says, is most likely due to some kind of contagion or pathogen. “It’s not something we can point at,” said Mussen about the bees fleeing from the hive.
Typically, it is normal for male bees to leave their hive or apiary in search of a virgin queen bee. The spreading of pathogens by these drones is possible, but it doesn’t solve the mystery behind CCD. “Honey bees drift, but this isn’t a drifting thing,” Mussen said.
The act of bees fleeing the hive in situations involving CCD reveals only part of the problem. The varroa mite, varroa meaning “destructor” in Latin, has been around since 1991 and has since weakened the bee population. By 1995 finding a non-kept honey bee colony was a rarity.
Mites are vectors for bee viruses just like mosquitoes transmit malaria. Mussen says now bees are getting better, but they are still not strong enough, something that might begin to explain the reason for CCD.
The U.S. is not the only place where CCD is apparent. Through his communication with bee experts all over the world, Mussen is a hive of information having to do with CCD and other cutting-edge bee related topics.
Though U.C Davis is not conducting research on CCD primarily due to its ongoing search for a honey bee expert, one thing entomologists at U.C. Davis are immersed in involves is the Light Brown Apple Moth, or LBAM.
The spraying of pesticides to suppress this problem causing pest on crops may be affecting honey bees. Eradication programs like the one in Santa Cruz that uses a pheromone substance has led to complaints about its toxic affect on the local food supply linked to pollination by bees.
Scientists at U.C. Davis are conducting experiments to determine the effect of LBAM sprays on bees. Besides receiving money from businesses like Häagen-Dazs who donated $100 thousand to support U.C. Davis bee studies, the commercial side of bees has less to do with honey than is generally assumed.
As Mussen explains, “honey production in California is a sideline.” Bees are mainly used to pollinate crops. Although California is within the top four states in honey production this is due to the large amount of bees, especially honey bees which are used more than other types of bees due to their adaptability when it comes to transporting mass amounts for commercial crop pollination.
Bee keeping is beginning to turn into a lost art—especially since CCD. Mussen who has been in the field since before the mystery epidemic and mites, or what he refers to as “the good old days,” says that younger people aren’t getting into this business.
“Bee keeping is an awful lot of work for an awful little reward and they aren’t getting rich. It’s just something some people like to do,” said Mussen who links it to CCD. “Bee keepers who got CCD two years ago are out of business.”
The depletion of bee keepers due to the mysterious depletion of bees is not the only puzzling phenomenon in the area.
While CCD research is going on, Honey Bee Research Entomologist Gordon Wardell is conducting studies on bee food and its affect on their lifespan. With the existence of feral bee colonies also comes the responsibility of providing bee food.
Between fructose, sucrose and diluted honey, it has been found that bees live the longest when they are fed sucrose. “One would think that diluted honey would be the most substantial,” said Mussen, which is the reason scientists are interested in finding an explanation about why bees live the longest off sucrose.
Mussen, who wears a bee belt buckle, didn’t plan on being a bee expert. With roots as an insect pathologist at the University of Minnesota in Saint Luis, besides being the focal point of his professional career bees have a sweet spot in his heart.
“General run-of-the-mill people are too worried to reach out and touch a bee,” said Mussen who is not one of those people when it comes to bees. “They have become a part of me.”